When Howard Dean crashed the party in the summer of 2003, his quixotic approach to trying to win the Democrat nomination for president was so outside the box that no one really knew what to make of him.
Five years, one failed presidential campaign, one party chairmanship and one very huge win over the GOP in the 2006 midterm elections later, Dean stands on the precipice of delivering the presidency to Democrats.
Dean's one-time fierce rival for the 2004 nomination, John Kerry, did. Kerry’s evaluation of Dean began when Kerry won the party’s presidential mantle.
“People forget," Kerry says, "this was a guy who could've picked up his toys and gone home in 2004. Instead, he threw himself into my campaign and worked his butt off.”
Kerry said Dean’s tireless campaigning meant a lot to him: “He was a man of his word and he was a hell of a good soldier. I still remember sitting in the motorcade with Howard, headed to his endorsement speech at George Washington (University). He told me he'd do anything, be anywhere, and say anything that'd help us.
“A lot of people speak those words. Howard backed them up with action. He really did. And he didn't stop there.”
Kerry’s former top adviser, Pittsburgh native David Morehouse, recalls Dean’s impact coming out of Iowa, where Dean led in the polls. “I remember seeing those guys in their bright orange hats and, at first, basically being fearful -- they had so many more people doing much more work than we did.”
Morehouse said his fear abated when he saw the “orange hats” up close: “They really did not fit into Iowa.”
While Dean lost Iowa and the nomination, Morehouse said that without Dean, there would be no Barack Obama. “What Dean did effectively was create an environment by showing that you can be a non-establishment candidate and out-raise the establishment candidate through the Internet.”
“He also changed the calculus in presidential politics by showing that one-issue candidates can be effective,” says GOP strategist David Carney.
Carney, from neighboring New Hampshire, had his first experience with Dr. Dean as the business-friendly, 100-percent-NRA-rated governor of Vermont who was still skittish about signing the state’s civil union legislation.
His nominee persona was quite different, according to Carney. “Dean burst on the national scene as this Harold Stassen-type candidate for president who ran against the war specifically.”
Carney said that Dean ran a very good grassroots campaign that veered hugely to the left, with a very solid message that resonated with new voters in the Democrat primaries and with traditional liberals.
“He was so effective in his messaging that, by the end, all of the other candidates had adopted it,” he said.
Carney adds that Dean’s Iowa meltdown is a myth: “New Hampshire had already turned towards Kerry.”
Both Carney and Morehouse think Dean’s metamorphosis into Democratic Party chair has been effective for similar reasons but from very different angles.
Morehouse, now president of the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL franchise, now looks at politics from the outside.
“From my vantage point, Dean took the DNC from almost an exclusively fundraising club and has moved it into the grassroots realm,” he says. He believes Dean’s recognition of his own success at raising money on the Internet as a candidate helped to change the DNC from such a fundraising-heavy organization.
“Instead, Dean implemented the 50-state program and started spending money on building grass roots in states where no Democrat had tried before -- party-building in not just traditional blue states but ruby-red states,” Morehouse explains.
Yet Carney sees Dean’s inability to raise money as a problem. According to the latest Federal Election Commission filings, the Republican National Committee has raised $143.3 million -- almost double the DNC's $77.6 million.
“Howard has problems raising money from the big power brokers. They are less than willing to hand him over money,” Carney said. But he agrees with Morehouse’s assessment of Dean’s impact on the party: “His effectiveness lies with the rank-and-file Democrats and the individual state parties.”
Carney believes Dean’s other weakness has been an inability to herd the party’s superdelegates during the run-up to the final primary contests between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It is too early to know what toll that rivalry will have on the party overall.
While Obama is the candidate most similar to Dean in positions and innovations, it was Dean who recognized early on in his campaign that Democrats needed to reach out to white working-class voters in order to win a general election.
Dean took much heat for referring to them as “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” but they are the voters who went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton during the primaries.
Which is another lesson Obama would do well to learn from the ever evolving Dean.